What does "real food" mean to you?
To me, it’s this creamy, colloidal beige stuff, made in a giant factory, that’s shelf-stable for months at room temperature. I like to stir a good dollop of it into dolphin-sacrificing, mercury-laden tuna and eat it on some Ritz crackers washed down with a Diet Coke.
OK, not really. But that was often my lunch a few years ago, during my overworked dot-com days. However, even then I didn’t think it was "real" food.
Last week I received an email from a professional at a world-renowned advertising agency about a new campaign for his client Hellman’s Mayonnaise. (On the West Coast it’s sold under the Best Foods brand.) He said they wanted to hear my thoughts on real food. If they liked my description, they’d feature the post on the Yahoo Food site they’d set up, where "celebrity chef" Dave Lieberman is blogging and posting videos about Americans and real food. In case I was worried that they just wanted to help me advertise mayonnaise, oh no.
"Our aim is not to get you to talk about Hellmann’s or mayo, but to get your authentic view on what ‘real food’ means to you so we can share it as part of our site," said the email. "To that end, your post does NOT have to mention our campaign or anything about Hellmann’s."
Guess that wasn’t in Chef Dave’s deal. In his introductory video segment for the Yahoo Food site, he seems nice, very guy-next-door-with-barbecue-tongs who’s just so gosh-darn excited to be "partnering up" with Hellman’s because "they care about real food just as much as I do!"
In a scene with background music that just screams "touching moment," Dave talks about how to him, real food "is a combination of food that’s cooked with passion, connected to a person or a memory of some time" … like the lemon sponge cake Dave’s grandmother who died before he could meet her liked to bake and give away; this cake is now Dave’s dad’s only tangible connection to his mother.
Other people on the street Dave interviews tell him real food is cornbread, or vegetables, or bison burgers
"Completely in season, right from the farm stand to your plate."
Hey wait a second — that’s what I think! Who are these people and do they know they’re in a Hellman’s mayonnaise ad campaign?
The video is part of a multimillion-dollar effort the company kicked off in April to promote "the freshness of ingredients in Hellmann’s," reported the Wall Street Journal (free article). The Journal says that Unilever, the $10 billion conglomerate that owns the Hellman’s/Best Foods brands along with Ben & Jerry’s and a bunch of others, pitched the "show" to the Food Network, but couldn’t reach a deal because the network "didn’t feel comfortable making a show with the amount of integrated branding" that Hellmann’s wanted.
The official press release, meanwhile, mentions that the Web-based series is the first to be executive-produced by Food Network star-chef Bobby Flay. "’In Search of Real Food’ is a programming concept that captures the fast- changes [sic] taking place within the food industry — the emphasis on local-grown and real foods — as well as the changes within the entertainment industry," it quoted Flay. "Finding new ways to reach consumers using interactivity is where the future of programming will be, and this show sets a new standard for consumer engagement."
I’ll say. I am completely engaged. Perhaps not in the way they wanted. Reminds me a bit of how I felt when McDonald’s put little toy Hummers in its Happy Meals.
According to the Journal, Unilever will spend $1 million to $2 million in ads on Yahoo to promote the "Real Food" show; Hellmann’s spent about $30 million on advertising last year total. Funny — that’s about how much ($32 million) the federal government is willing to spend on the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, which helps farmers nationwide market their actual, grown-in-the-dirt food, not food products, to consumers, according to the latest Farm Bill markup released Saturday by House Ag Chair Collin Peterson. Over five years.
So far, no bloggers seem to have taken the bait, as there’s no "post of the week" up yet on the Yahoo Food site and no one has tagged any images on Flickr with "realfoodgallery" as Dave says to do in his blog. My friend Derrick at Obsession with Food did offer a few choice words in response to the same email, while Colleen at hipstraights jokes, "Are we considering condiments food now?" Even Food Network junkie Mike at TV Food Fan tempered his enthusiasm for Dave’s new gig with, "I’m guessing that we won’t get a tutorial on how to make your own mayo at home." Weirdly, he followed that mildly critical comment with this cowering "Ed. note": "I don’t mean to sound like I’m ragging on Hellman’s. Theirs is the best brand available and I see absolutely no need to may [sic] my own mayo at home. I guarantee a bout of salmonella would be my reward for even trying."
Mike, that’s exactly what they want you to think. It’s quite easy to make, whether you do so by hand or an immersion blender or even with an electric drill — especially with good eggs, like those you’ll find at a farmers market. I, however, have only made it a few times, along with aioli. My husband goes through mayonnaise by the quart, so I buy it at the grocery store. I’m not saying the Spectrum Organics brand we buy now is actually any more "real" than Hellman’s/Best Foods; Spectrum is owned by the Hain’s Group, another multimillion-dollar publicly held conglomerate. But it does at least taste a little closer to homemade.
What’s keeping me up so late with annoyance is the insidious way that Hellman’s/Best Foods is trying to co-opt the idea of real food by velcro-ing their manufactured "foodlike product" to it in this smarmy marketing campaign. It’s factory food: sterile, shelf-stable, and the "natural flavors" it mostly tastes like come from another factory, one that makes chemical compounds that mimic real food.
Tomorrow, I’ll post about what "real food" actually does mean to me, because I think it’s an idea worth defending. I’d love to read your versions, too.
…Just not on Hellman’s Yahoo! Food site.